Commissioner James Allen Graham, universally known as Jim Graham, was born in Cleveland, North Carolina, in 1921. He grew up on a 250-acre farm where his family raised cattle and grew cotton and grain. Although his mother wanted him to go to Davidson College to study for the ministry, Graham chose to attend NC State (then called State College) and graduated with a degree in agricultural education in 1942. After graduation he worked as a teacher in the Celeste Henkle School in Iredell County, having been disqualified for military service because of vision problems. He taught for several years before accepting a job running a test farm in Ashe County. There he worked on experiments related to raising beef cattle and sheep. Subsequently, he managed the Dixie Classic Fair in Winston-Salem and the Farmers Market in Raleigh.
In 1964 then governor Terry Sanford appointed him to fill the unexpired term of L. Y. "Stag" Ballentine, who died while in office as North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture. Since then, Graham has been elected to that office every four years until the year 2000. He has become, with thirty-six years in office, the longest serving commissioner of agriculture in the United States. In this capacity, he has emerged as a national figure, holding the presidency at one time or another of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, the Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture, and the Southern United States Trade Association.
Jim Graham has made it very clear over the years that he loves his job, and his dedication manifests itself in the department's (and the state's) accomplishments during his tenure as commissioner of agriculture. Farm income has increased from $1 billion per year to $8 billion. The state's farmers now earn the third-highest net income in the nation. As Terry Sanford wrote: "All citizens, businesses and institutions [in North Carolina] will long benefit from his career of service."